Will the real contractors please stand up?

  • Ben Townson
  • 09 Feb 2018

Yes, that is a terrible reference to Eminem’s Real Slim Shady song! I’m new to this, so please give me a break.

Firstly, I’m a bit dubious about this kind of stuff. You know, blogging or whatever it is. It all feels a bit narcissistic. Hey everyone, look at me! This kind of feels like that. I’m not important, neither is my view, so please don’t take offence and definitely don’t take this too seriously. What I’m about to write is just an observation, it’s not gospel and certainly does not apply to everyone. Happy to be heckled though. I work in recruitment, there’s not much you can say that hasn’t already been shouted down a phone at me.

So, am I an expert in recruitment, am I remotely qualified to talk about any of the following? Well, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, 10,000 hours is what it takes to become an expert (I think that’s been debunked, but for the sake of the article just humour me). I’ve worked in the recruitment industry for 11 years, so simple maths will tell you I’ve clocked enough hours, even taking the rare holiday and the occasional sick day into account. Having said that, I still don’t think I’ve mastered this business, far from it. What my 11 years does give me though, is plenty of face time with hiring managers and job seekers. Over recent years I’ve been faced with a reoccurring question, “Ben, when did contractors stop being guns for hire and become such prima donnas”?

For those who are reading this, I can imagine sharp intakes of breath and an angry battering of keyboards to convey your displeasure. Please bear with me whilst I provide some context.

The view I get presented with is that “back in the day” contractors were hired as a way of supplementing a permanent workforce. A Liam Neeson type person with a very specific set of skills would be paid a premium to join the team, get the job done, no complaining, no demands, just get on with it. Fast forward to the present day and contractors are, how to say this, well contractors have become precious. They are looking for top of the market rates, combined with a day from home, 9 to 5 hours, demanding access to the best projects, career progression, access to training, occasionally a bare minimum approach to work and god forbid being asked to do something that isn’t in their job description! Candidates with just a couple of years’ work experience are now requesting top dollar for their time. There even appears to be a distinct lack of commitment to the long term, i.e. the project isn’t going well so people jump ship.

As I said from the outset, this is purely a conversation starter. The fence is being sat on by myself! What do you think? Is this a fair assessment? Perhaps it’s an outdated view that has no place in the current workforce? Times change, we’re not in the dark ages, so maybe the contracting workforce has moved on?

For the sake of this article, our lovely Digital Marketing Manager has asked me to climb off my imaginary fence for a moment and consider whether there is any validity to the argument; are contractors prima donnas?

Absolutely not.

Well, maybe a handful. I could name a few Elton Johns and Mariah Careys of the Sydney contracting market. I believe there is much more opportunity out there for contractors than ever, this in turn creates a market place whereby the contract workforce can be highly selective about the role / project they accept. As such employers find themselves competing on price, needing to offer flexible working arrangements and sometimes access to “sexy” projects or even a step up the ladder into a more senior role. Contracting has become a viable (and let’s face it, more lucrative) alternative to permanent employment, with the added bonus of diversity in the type of work one gets access to. There is less of an “us and them” approach to contractors in corporate environments. It’s a pretty good time to be a contractor.

So, has anything else changed? Well let’s face it, the entire working environment has changed. Head over to LinkedIn and everybody is trying to out do each other regarding how cool their office is, how their welcome pack is better than yours and pictures of the view from their desk, pictures of indoor grass or pictures of a giant hamster wheel hanging from the ceiling. I digress slightly, what I’m getting at is society and its relationship with work has shifted; "company men" (and women) are becoming a thing of the past, employees don’t want to be stuck in dark and dingy cubicles anymore, changes in technology allow us to perform jobs remotely and work is now less about picking a career and sticking to it for the rest of our lives, work is now a legitimate avenue for us to earn a living by following our passions. It's a generational thing - there’s been a step change in attitudes. It’s no longer about work life balance, it’s referred to as work life integration!

When I was in my early 20’s, I came into work, got my head down and didn’t question the status quo. I was just delighted to have a job! I don’t think this was unique to me, as I saw people of the same age around me approach work in a similar fashion. Where as now I work with people who are entering the workforce and they have opinions and a much bigger voice than I ever did. The younger generation appears to want things quicker, they want it now and they’ll be damned if they are going to wait for 5, 10 or 15 years for that promotion. Good on them I say.

But hang on I hear you saying, what has this got to do with your original statement about prima donnas?!

The point I'm making is that it’s all interlinked. All these things trickle down into every facet of the workforce. With the increase of millennials in the workplace, general attitudes and relationships toward work have progressed (or digressed depending upon your outlook). It’s not that contractors are no longer guns for hire, of course they still are! It’s not that they are precious either. Yes, they might have higher expectations in terms of their working environment, how quickly they can climb the ranks or the opportunities they are exposed to. People are now taking advantage of not just the financial benefits contracting offers. It’s now used as a way of broadening their experience and skills. Careers are one of choice, not based on desperation or duty! Careers need to align with who the individual is. That certainly doesn’t make them prima donnas though.

When all is said and done, this isn’t a significant problem. It’s not causing famine, wars or widespread disease. It’s just an observation. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts too...

Ben Townson

Ben Townson

Managing Consultant, T+O+M Executive

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